In a fascinating piece this week from the Wall Street Journal, the case was made that individuals will only effectively change their behavior in mass based on peer pressure. The theory, supported by some direct studies and data, is that change takes place on a larger scale when you are made aware of what your neighbors are doing and react to “keep up with the Jones’.” The article also details how rebate and financial incentives are not the drivers many of us believe they are (or should be).
The implication for marketers is staggering – Should I tout the positive impact my product has on the environment, rolling out statistics to consumers on how their purchase further benefits all of us. (the rising tide theory)
OR, should we subtly shame our customers into making the “right” choice since they will be left out by the crowd? This is a fine line, and many mass products do this in a very sophisticated way (think the Pepsi Generation, or any Apple advertising, for example)
One of the take-aways I found most interesting was near the end of the piece: Efforts to exploit our keeping-up-with-the-Joneses instinct can also backfire if there’s too much emphasis on competition.
There is this interesting nugget: Paul Stern, who studies climate change at the National Academy of Sciences, cautions that peer pressure so far has proved effective with “relatively low-impact behaviors” that don’t require individuals to make big sacrifices.
So, we want to be part of the crowd, but will only be motivated by that need for small change? What’s a company who is asking for a sea change – rewiring your entire house for solar, for example – do to motivate real adoption.
My initial reaction – lead. And don’t just say you’re going to do it, but commit. And have a dispassionate understanding of the resources needed to do so.
Google came out last week talking about its plans for an offshore wind pipeline system. Heady, expensive, long term stuff. And they have the resources to pull it off. For the smaller sustainable company without endless cash, this means leading by finding those pockets of enthusiasm and slowly building towards more mass adoption. It is finding the better nature in the right buyers. These leaders will have influence in their own spheres. It will be slower; it will take longer, and it requires smarter investments. Just because you’re not Google doesn’t mean you can make a difference with a sustainable product – and peer pressure won’t be your magic bullet.